Which Came First: Knowledge of God or Morality? (Or Both?)

by Frost Smith on April 26, 2016

It seems nearly every week a new study or, more likely, opinion piece is printed with some assertion about man’s innate morality. I say innate because nearly everyone acknowledges that there is an innate morality, but opinions differ on the specifics and why and when we developed it. This paper will serve as a brief overview of literature from multiple sources to discuss the paucity of real answers available apart from the Word of God.


I make no apology for saying this: your opinion1 on this issue doesn’t matter, nor do the opinions of the authors of any of these studies cited here. Neither does mine, but there is something that does. With so many complexities and differences of opinion on the issue, it should become clear that the answer is not to be found among humans—at least not yet. Where, then, is the answer? Ironically, many have come to the conclusion that the issue is not simple enough even to come to a conclusion. If there were no God, and there were no revelation about Him, it would be reasonable to come to the same conclusion—if reason could even be said to exist.

The issue of morality is tied up in many concepts, which doesn’t help make the issue any more comprehensible. Often the idea is presented more as the evolution of religion or the evolution of a concept of God (as if it’s fully out of the picture to acknowledge even the possibility of one that’s revealed Himself at all to us)—or even of altruism and social graces, cooperation, society, supernatural phenomena, generosity, and so on. Admittedly, covering all of these topics merit separate considerations, but there is a common thread that will be discussed in this paper.

Inseparable from the consideration of these concepts are the assumptions of the investigator—perhaps more so than any other consideration of humanity. Acknowledging supernatural things and a concept of right and wrong is beyond us scientifically, but we can look at the brain, behavior of individuals, and events today and, to an extent, in the past. Evolutionary scientists also look at animals, because they assume that some rudiments of moral behavior are inherited, since we are just evolved animals.

A biblical creationist doesn’t make that assumption. In fact, quite the opposite in this case: we are entirely distinct from animals in our relationship with God, being created specially and in His image (Genesis 1:26), being the apple of His eye (Psalm 17:8), being the only created entity with an everlasting spirit (Ecclesiastes 3:21), and being the form God chose in condescending to live among us and redeem us to be His (Matthew 1:23; Titus 2:14).

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning, Though Naturalists Don’t Have One

If we did evolve, then our human nature—including a belief in God, morality, altruism, and so on—is indeed something that also had to evolve. There are those that believe that, at some point, God intervened in the process and instilled in us this capacity, but that is wholly unsatisfactory for reasons stated in a previous paper.2 So we’re back to a naturalistic process.

Animals aside, evolutionary scientists consider our human nature as primarily developing during our supposed primate and subsequent hominid development, and that is what the bulk of the papers on this topic discuss. Answers in Genesis rejects the category of hominids entirely based on the principles briefly laid out above, and, of course, the clear record of the Creation account in Genesis 1 and 2.3

Delving into the many hypotheses to give a naturalistic explanation for our distinctly human sense of something greater than ourselves (to sum it up as succinctly as possible), we are presented with a few basic ideas once distilled. Note that there does not seem to be a full consensus on the many details of the supposed evolutionary history of human morality and religiosity.4

So the greatly simplified story goes, not necessarily in order as some things were supposedly developing contemporaneously:

  1. Some lower animals (even bees!)5 and primates, in particular, seem to be able to exhibit altruism and/or empathy: an assumed progression of the ability to sense others’ needs/feelings is interpreted as an evolutionary progression toward the human-unique moral sense of obligation to others at a cost to oneself.
  2. This sense of “getting into the mind” of another supposedly led to the notion of attributing purpose to inanimate objects, thus developing a supernatural sense.
  3. Selfish behavior of some individuals in a community led to the development of rules to punish freeloaders and to give community cohesiveness as an assurance of fairness and some societal benefit via reciprocation for selfless acts. This led to greater fitness of a singular community, not necessarily each individual.
  4. Religion and morality blossomed out of a combination of the effects of points two and three and became fixed and passed down in society, with similar results across cultures.6
  5. Personal feelings of what is good or bad have been added to religious beliefs.

Devastatingly, each of these is arbitrary. To explain how the empathy developed to begin with is a bit of a Catch-22. Secularists thinking in terms of natural selection would argue that selfishness is a benefit to fitness. A purview in evolutionist literature on the development of morality shows that most now reject the notion that our behavior is just a product of our brain chemistry, but that the growth of our community sense, as described above, combined with the still-important chemistry and brain size is the explanation. The following quote sums up how this cocktail of interaction and intuition led to humans as we are now:

[W]e are evolved creatures, and our psychological capacities, like other complex capacities, are outcomes of evolutionary processes. But this does not by itself settle whether these capacities and tendencies are themselves adaptations, having evolved through natural selection because of their adaptive effects. That is the most common view . . . but there are alternatives.

It is possible, for example, that our capacity to make moral judgments is a spin-off (side-effect or by-product) of our non-moral intellectual capacities, which latter are adaptations. On this view, we tend to make moral judgments because we are intellectual and reflective creatures, not because natural selection has specifically given us this moral capacity and tendency as an adaptation; the role of natural selection would be indirect, supplying more general capacities as adaptations, from which specifically moral tendencies spring independently.7

It Is Not Good for Man To Be Alone

“I fully subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important.”

–Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Clearly, man’s sense of the supernatural and morality, coupled with the fact that there is organized religion, all point to something special about humankind—something that evolutionists must explain away. While an answer can be conjured for nearly every question regarding the special status of man (including saying that we’re not special at all!), such contortions are unnecessary. Only those who totally deny the existence of anything supernatural need such naturalistic explanations.

If there is a God (or even gods/creators), would they not imbue or at least have impacted us with some essence of themselves?8 Besides our physical stature and biochemistry, our minds and, yes, souls should bear some consistent imprint and design. And we see a consistent sense of morality among general humanity (ruthless dictators and desperate circumstances notwithstanding). The fact that atheists have a moral code (sometimes, sadly, more than some that claim to be Christians!9) is an ironic testament to the image of the God that they deny. Why would there be any need to be altruistic or even generous if other humans had no more value than other animals competing for resources? Even if it were for “feel-good” chemicals (see footnote 4), why should it feel good?

The God of the Bible is a consistent, relational, and singular cooperative entity of three persons10 who desires a people to bear His image and authority (Genesis 1:26). His Word is the basis for all moral codes—whether people realize it or not. Despite the lack of respect the Bible—particularly Genesis—often gets, the Ten Commandments and so-called “Golden Rule” (Luke 6:31) are set forward as the standard for interpersonal relations. The first half of the Ten Commandments also gives us information about how God wants us to relate to Him. Clearly God also desires a relationship with us, so much that He revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ and is preparing a place for us (John 14:2–3), even though we have rejected and rebelled against Him from our first parents to the present.

Mankind’s continued attempts to deny the God of the Bible—the very source for the basis of what we call morality and humanity11—have been unsatisfactory even to those who deny Him, as evidenced by lack of consensus and fully satisfying explanations of what is a complex issue in their eyes.12 Even the floundering sense of vague religiousness so apparent in the news and social media attests to man’s attempts but inability to fully deny God as He has revealed Himself in His Word.13

Not-so-same Difference

But it’s not a complex issue. Beginning in Genesis 2, we see an intimate relationship between man and God. God formed man and breathed life into his nostrils, instead of speaking him into existence as He did the other animals (primates included!).

Genesis 2 shows God with man in the Garden, forming Him, planting a garden, and talking to him. Genesis 3:8 shows God walking in the Garden of Eden to find Adam even after he sinned. Continuing through the patriarchs, we see that at least Enoch and Noah “walked with God.” Noah’s son Shem lived until after Abraham was born and perhaps knew or taught him about God.14

We do know that God revealed Himself to Abraham and made a covenant with him, revealing Himself multiple times through Abraham’s descendants, then again with Moses and the prophets, until He Himself came to adopt us into His family through His own blood and Resurrection. Since then, we have had His words that reveal to us history, fully accurate prophecy, and His will for us in the form of Scripture.

God never left us without a witness or direction. God and the one true religious worship of Him are no mystery. We need no hypotheses to determine how man came to be conscious of himself and others, when we began to acknowledge God, or when we began to practice worship. There is a book15 that tells us these things, and even tells us why humanity rejects and refuses to acknowledge Him and His revelation to us (Romans 1:19–21; 1 Corinthians 2). And most importantly, there is a book that still tells us also how we can know and walk with our Creator again (Romans 6:4; Revelation 3:4–5). That is what matters.


Allchin, Douglas. 2009. “The Evolution of Morality,” Evolution: Education and Outreach 2, no. 4 (December). doi:10.1007/s12052-009-0167-7.

Bird, Mark. 2008. “The Trinity.” Answers in Depth 3 (July). https://answersingenesis.org/who-is-god/the-trinity/the-trinity/.

Golden, Steve. 2014.“Bill, There Is a Book Out There.” Answers in Genesis, February 5. https://answersingenesis.org/creation-vs-evolution/bill-there-is-a-book-out-there/

Ham, Ken. 2015. “Bill Nye Does Not Know the Origin of Empathy, but His Creator Does,” Ken Ham blog, December 1. https://answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2015/12/01/bill-nye-does-not-know-origin-empathy-his-creator-does/.

Haverluck , Michael F. 2016. “And America’s Most, Least Bible-Minded City Is . . .” OneNewsNow, January 24. http://www.onenewsnow.com/church/2016/01/24/and-america-s-most-least-bible-minded-city-is.

Hays, Brooks. 2015. “Study: Religious Kids Don't Share as Much,” United Press International, November 5. http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2015/11/05/Study-Religious-kids-dont-share-as-much/8221446748655/.

———. 2016. “Research Suggests Morality Can Survive Without Religion.” United Press International, January 13. http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2016/01/13/Research-suggests-morality-can-survive-without-religion/6411452715270/.

Hodge, Bodie. 2009. “Ancient Patriarchs in Genesis.” Answers in Genesis, January 20. https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/ancient-patriarchs-in-genesis/.

Inazu, John. 2015. “America's Dividing Line: Thoughts, Prayers and Belief in a Transcendent God.” CNN, December 4. http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/04/opinions/inazu-thoughts-and-prayers-transcendence-line/index.html.

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. 2015. “Did the Evolution of the Brain . . . Evolve Our Morality?” Audio interview with Dr. Patricia Churchland. http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/te20150531.

Mehta, Hemant. 2013. “Are Religious People Really More Generous Than Atheists? A New Study Puts That Myth to Rest.” Friendly Atheist blog, November 28. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/11/28/are-religious-people-really-more-generous-than-atheists-a-new-study-puts-that-myth-to-rest/.

Palermo, Elizabeth. 2015. “The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved.” Live Science, October 5. http://www.livescience.com/52364-origins-supernatural-relgious-beliefs.html.

Purdom, Georgia and Jason Lisle. 2009. “Morality and the Irrationality of an Evolutionary Worldview.” Answers in Depth 4 (May 13): https://answersingenesis.org/morality/morality-and-the-irrationality-of-an-evolutionary-worldview/.

Smith, Emily Esfahani. 2015. “Is Human Morality a Product of Evolution?” The Atlantic, December 2. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/12/evolution-of-morality-social-humans-and-apes/418371/.

Smith, Frost. 2015. “Evolution and What the Image of God Is Not.” Answers in Depth 10 (August): https://answersingenesis.org/are-humans-animals/evolution-and-what-image-god-is-not/.

“Morality and Evolutionary Biology.” 2014. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-biology/.

Stern, Mark Joseph. 2014. “Is Religion Good for Children?” Slate, July 29. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/07/is_religion_good_for_children_secular_children_can_distinguish_between_magic.html.

Stewart-Williams, Steve. 2010. “Did Morality Evolve?” The Nature-Nurture-Nietzsche Blog, May 2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-nature-nurture-nietzsche-blog/201005/did-morality-evolve.

Thomson, J. Anderson and Clare Aukofer. 2011. “Science and Religion: God Didn't Make Man; Man Made Gods.” LA Times, July 18. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/18/opinion/la-oe-thompson-atheism-20110718.


  1. Opinions are arbitrary and carry no weight in an argument. The only opinion that could carry weight is one that is absolute in authority.
  2. Frost Smith, “Image of God, Part 1: Evolution and What the Image of God Is Not,” Answers in Genesis, August 8, 2015, https://answersingenesis.org/are-humans-animals/evolution-and-what-image-god-is-not/.
  3. “Hominids,” Answers in Genesis, https://answersingenesis.org/human-evolution/hominids/.
  4. For example, others have posited that altruism makes one more attractive to potential mates, increasing reproductive fitness and that we get a rush of “feel good” chemicals when helping others. See Steve Stewart-Williams, “Did Morality Evolve?,” Psychology Today, May 2, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-nature-nurture-nietzsche-blog/201005/did-morality-evolve; and Patricia Churchland, “Did the Evolution of the Brain . . . Evolve Our Morality?,” Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, October 18, 2015, http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/te20150531.
  5. “Morality and Evolutionary Biology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, July 23, 2014, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-biology/.
  6. Darwin said, “The same high mental faculties which first led man to believe in unseen spiritual agencies, then in fetishism, polytheism, and ultimately in monotheism, would infallibly lead him, as long as his reasoning powers remained poorly developed, to various strange superstitions and customs.” Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (February 24, 1871, www.literature.org/authors/darwin-charles/the-descent-of-man/chapter-03.html).
  7. “Morality and Evolutionary Biology.”
  8. Most common representations of gods and even aliens have at least animalistic characteristics, such as bilateral symmetry, and often have “anthropomorphic” emotions and a personality, i.e., they take human qualities and try to make the gods/aliens in our image.
  9. Note that a recent study comparing children of differing religions and cultures suggests that religious children are less altruistic. It should be noted that Christianity is not something one is born into. It is a personal decision of a cognitive individual to have a personal relationship with the God of the Bible. That said, naturally parents in any household could do a better job at instilling generosity in their children. But again, where did the idea of this “Golden Rule” to share and help others come from? See Isaiah 58:7 and Luke 3:11 for starters.
  10. Mark Bird, “The Trinity,” Answers in Depth, July 30, 2008, https://answersingenesis.org/who-is-god/the-trinity/the-trinity/.
  11. Georgia Purdom and Jason Lisle, “Morality and the Irrationality of an Evolutionary Worldview,” Answers in Depth, May 13, 2009, https://answersingenesis.org/morality/morality-and-the-irrationality-of-an-evolutionary-worldview/.
  12. Note the number of times complexity is mentioned in “Morality and Evolutionary Biology,”http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-biology/.
  13. John Inazu, “America’s Dividing Line: Thoughts, Prayers and Belief in a Transcendent God,” CNN, December 4, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/04/opinions/inazu-thoughts-and-prayers-transcendence-line/index.html; and Michael F. Haverluck, “And America’s Most, Least Bible-Minded City Is . . .,” January 24, 2016, http://www.onenewsnow.com/church/2016/01/24/and-america-s-most-least-bible-minded-city-is.
  14. Bodie Hodge, “Ancient Patriarchs in Genesis,” Answers in Genesis, January 20, 2009, https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/ancient-patriarchs-in-genesis/.
  15. Steve Golden, “Bill, There Is a Book Out There,” Answers in Genesis, February 5, 2014, https://answersingenesis.org/creation-vs-evolution/bill-there-is-a-book-out-there/.


Get the latest answers emailed to you.

I agree to the current Privacy Policy.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA, and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Learn more

  • Customer Service 800.778.3390